- Mark Saxon, ESPN Staff Writer
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PASADENA, Calif. -- USC football coach Lane Kiffin managed to avoid controversy for the most part at Thursday's Pac-10 football media day up until the moment he was asked why he thinks the Tennessee Titans are suing him and the university for luring away running backs coach Kennedy Pola a week before NFL training camp.
"I think it has to do with the location of the team in the lawsuit," Kiffin said.
The Titans' suit accuses Kiffin of violating Pola's contract, which required Pola to have written permission to discuss a job with anyone other than the Titans. Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher admittedly was angry when Kiffin apparently contacted Pola without the customary courtesy call to Fisher. Kiffin claims he left a message for Fisher within the usual time frame of such a request and says he smoothed over the dispute with the USC alumnus in recent days.
"When Jeff said that, I did take it personal," Kiffin said. "Not just because he's an SC guy, but he's Jeff Fisher, and I have a lot of respect for him. I'm confident that after talking to Jeff ... that he feels differently about that now. I don't know if he can come out and say it after what has gone on."
Kiffin, who abruptly left a job at the University of Tennessee to replace Pete Carroll at USC in January, admits he was stung by Fisher's criticism over the hiring of Pola.
Kiffin is now accountable to incoming USC athletic director Pat Haden, who succeeds Mike Garrett next week. Kiffin said he has spoken to Haden about the lawsuit.
"He wasn't pleased. Nor was I," Kiffin said. "He was well aware of every step of this."
Kiffin claimed he was forced to wait to hire a running backs coach and offensive coordinator until a few days before most football teams report to camp because the Trojans hadn't resolved the fate of running backs coach Todd McNair, whose contract wasn't renewed when it expired July 1. McNair was a key figure in the NCAA's investigation of illegal benefits for Heisman Trophy-winning tailback Reggie Bush, leading to heavy sanctions against USC last month.
Kiffin first tried to hire Vikings running backs coach Eric Bieniemy, who nearly accepted before Minnesota gave him a pay raise and a promotion to assistant head coach.
"We were very far down the road with Eric Bieniemy, thought it was done," Kiffin said.
With a full coaching staff in place, Kiffin's biggest concern about the Trojans' sanctions revolves around the unintended consequences of the NCAA bylaw that allows players to leave USC at any point without losing or postponing eligibility.
The coach believes it amounts to free agency, and he questions whether the bylaw can be used to punish his program in ways that weren't intended. He worries USC's coaches must use extreme caution to avoid angering players who might transfer if they're sent to run laps.
"There's no cut-off date," Kiffin said. "To me, there's no cut-off date until the last add-drop date at the school that's trying to recruit them. It's a difficult situation."
Mark Saxon covers USC football for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.
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